In the wake of the French intervention in Mali, there is much talk of the Sahel region becoming a safe haven for extremist Islamists. Africa’s vast desert territories are perceived as ‘ungoverned spaces’, or ‘black holes’ where a dangerous underworld of terrorists and criminals operate freely and whence they will eventually launch their attacks on a Western world whose lifestyle and values they despise and oppose. Some perceive of an ‘arc of instability’ stretching from Chad and Mali in the west to Somalia and Sudan in the east. The Economist speaks of ‘Afrighanistan’, declaring Africa ‘the next front of the global war on terror’, and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird warns that Mali threatens to become another Afghanistan or Iraq.
To be sure, there are many reasons to be concerned about Mali and the growth of fundamentalist violence in some African countries, and there is no denying the death and destruction caused by groups like al-Shaabab, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Boko Haram. But there are also good reasons to be wary of the tendency to describe these diverse groups and struggles as part of a global jihad, and to wrap Africa and its poverty in an all-encompassing discourse of security and fear. Not only do such discourses blind us to the local causes and objectives of conflicts, but they may also lead to policy responses that can escalate resentment and radicalization.
The current fear of Islamic fundamentalism frequently serves to escalate local conflicts to the global arena. Mali is a case in point. The recent crisis is both an old and a new story. Ever since independence, diverse Tuareg populations have resisted the central state, with some demanding secession for Azawad (a part of northern Mali) while others seek greater justice and development within the existing territory. More recently, and especially since the spring of 2012, Islamist groups have gained increasing influence, and some of these groups have in turn become affiliated to and supported by AQIM. This is not one uniform struggle but struggles within struggles, with multiple, overlapping and sometimes conflicting dynamics, agendas and complex entanglements of ethnicity, ideology and political opportunism. In this sense, the crisis in Mali goes far beyond what can be meaningfully captured in a singular security discourse of global jihadism and Islamic fundamentalism, and any solution to the situation will require much more than a military push-back.
At the same time, the language of the global war on terror is itself a factor in such conflicts and can be a valuable resource for militants and governments alike. The politics of fear allows insurgents immediate access to a powerful symbolism, but invocations of a global jihad do not always signal the same degree of ideological fervour and commitment; they can also be a clever strategic or opportunistic move to enhance your perceived strength vis-à-vis your opponent.
That opponent, however, is more likely to be local rather than global, and for many groups in Mali the main target is the state. This is also the case with Boko Haram in Nigeria. For these governments too, the war on terror is a valuable resource: faced with an enemy who has been labeled ‘terrorist’, governments can receive almost blanket approval and considerable external support for violent oppression. Military and security assistance to the African continent has grown substantially in recent years, and Mali is currently poised to receive significant resources to strengthen its military power and control. Without far-reaching political and democratic reform, however, military assistance can ensure the survival of the existing regime and power structures, and provide the resources to clamp down on legitimate political opposition, all under the cover of security and the global war on terror. Longstanding sources of local grievances and struggles may thus remain unaddressed and may even intensify, with external actors contributing to local conflicts they neither fully understand nor control.
None of this is to say that we should not take seriously the seeming growth of fundamentalist violence in parts of Africa, nor does it seek to diminish the suffering caused by such groups in Mali and elsewhere. There is a pressing need for systematic investigations of the continent’s material, ideological and normative links to global networks of violence, and for creative and effective policy responses.
However, the temptation to see Afghanistan in Africa, and to resort to grand global narratives and blanket explanations, are of little assistance in this regard. In fact, such totalizing discourses of global Islamic terrorism blind us to the fact that many violent Islamic groups are formed in opposition to specific domestic contexts and issues. If there are parallels to be drawn between the Sahel, on one hand, and Afghanistan and Iraq, on the other, they lie in the dangers of outside actors misunderstanding and ignoring local situations and struggles. Recent history has shown the perils and consequences of such errors, and it is vital that engagement with Mali and the Sahel does not repeat them.
Rita Abrahamsen is a professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. A version of this article appears on theblogof the Centre for International Policy Studies (CIPS).